Sao Paulo, Brazil – Chants of “Lula, warrior of the Brazilian people!” rang out as Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, the country’s best-loved politician, took the microphone at a May 1 Labour Day event in front of Sao Paulo’s iconic Pacaembu football stadium.
“We do not accept this hatred that is being imposed by this genocidist who governs the Brazil,” the gravel voiced, two-time former president told the crowd, referring to country’s current head of state, President Jair Bolsonaro.
Lula, now 76, will launch his sixth bid for Brazil’s presidency on Saturday amid rocketing living costs and growing fears of authoritarianism in Latin America’s largest democracy.
Bolsonaro, a gun-loving nationalist who admires leaders like Hungary’s Viktor Orban, has repeatedly claimed without evidence that Brazil’s electronic voting system is vulnerable to fraud, setting the stage for a potential crisis when votes are counted.
Brazilian pollster Datafolha said in March that Lula held a comfortable, 17 percentage point lead over Bolsonaro in the first round of voting on October 2 – but experts predict it will tighten as the elections approach.
“It’s going to be a very tough election,” said Thomas Traumann, a political analyst and former communications minister for Lula’s Workers’ Party (PT). “For Lula, getting elected is just the first step.”
Hunger, poverty key issues
Born into extreme poverty in the rugged dry backlands of Brazil’s northeast, Lula led metalworker strikes in Sao Paulo’s industrial suburbs in the late 1970s during the country’s military dictatorship and afterwards went into politics.
Elected president on his fourth attempt in 2002 during a global commodities boom, international experts lauded his policies of hunger eradication and social inclusion in one of the world’s most brutally unequal countries.
“Before Lula, many people in my district lived in shacks made from wood and cardboard,” said Juliana Cardoso, a four-time Sao Paulo city councillor for PT, who represents some of the most deprived parts of the city’s sprawling east zone, home to 4.6 million people. “Lula brought jobs, decent food, housing and university education to the working class,” she added.
Today, with an economy rocked by COVID-19 and the war in Ukraine, Brazil’s inflation is soaring with sharp price hikes on cooking gas, fuel and basic food items, which disproportionally affects lower-wage earners.
More than half of the population suffers some kind of food insecurity, according to Brazil’s Research Network on Food and Nutrition Sovereignty and Security, with reports of people queueing at butcher shops for donations of bones making national headlines.
“People don’t have income and whoever is working can’t afford to put food on the table,” Cardoso said. “The people of my district want President Lula to come back … They won’t accept scraping bones to eat, or not having schools and opportunity.”
Unemployment has dropped slightly in recent months but remains high while many new job vacancies are precarious and low-paying, according to government data. Analysts consider a labour reform package to expand the rights of Brazil’s ever-growing army of delivery app drivers a top priority and one that Lula mentioned during his Labour Day speech.
“The job market is changing in several countries and Brazil, too,” said Nelson Barbosa, an economist and former planning minister with Lula’s PT. “This requires an adaption of legislation, taxation … a project of reform that gives more security to the worker with the flexibility that these current technologies demand.”
If elected, Lula will face significant challenges to alleviate immediate poverty concerns while tackling inflation and delivering growth to generate jobs.
“Brazil is increasingly specialised in commodities,” Barbosa said. “The problem is commodities doesn’t generate enough jobs for a country of 210 million people … You have pockets that grow and get very rich in a country where the majority live in poverty.”
However, high commodity prices could help fund social policies and diversification programmes for industry and green energy to deliver growth, he said. “Brazil has already done this in the past,” said Barbosa. “But the biggest challenge is governability,” he added.
If elected in October, Lula would have to work with Brazil’s notoriously horse-trading national Congress where pork barrel politics reign.
Experts predict Bolsonaro loyalist candidates will fare worse than in 2018, but that Lula and allied parties will still be way off having the majority necessary to push through reforms, presenting possible problems for governability.
“Overall, Brazil’s Congress in 2022 will likely be as conservative as it is now,” said Beatriz Rey, a political scientist and research fellow at the Johns Hopkins University who specialises in Brazilian legislative politics.
Lula chose centre-right former Sao Paulo governor and 2006 elections rival Geraldo Alckmin to be his vice president, a move considered a pragmatic attempt to get the country’s political centre and business community onside.
“Without doubt, it’s an attempt to generate more governability, it has as much an electoral objective as a legislative one,” said Rey. “Whether it will work, I don’t know.”
Traumann, the political analyst, said that people would not forget that Lula’s predecessor Dilma Rousseff oversaw the worst recession in Brazil’s recent history. “The current campaign is too much about the past and not enough about the future,” he added.
Last year, Brazil’s Supreme Court annulled a corruption-related conviction that saw Lula jailed in 2018 and the UN Human Rights Committee recently concluded that the trial by Judge Sergio Moro, who served as Bolsonaro’s justice minister, violated due process.
Lula, his lawyers, many other jurists and his supporters always blasted the conviction as a political witch-hunt to prevent him running in 2018 elections that Bolsonaro would go on to win.
While cleared of charges and by far the country’s most popular politician, for his many critics in Brazil, Lula remains at best irresponsible and at worst a criminal. But other long-term Lula detractors, such as former Sao Paulo governor and now presidential candidate Joao Doria, appeared to have toned down their rhetoric.
Doria recently told Brazil’s top business daily Valor Economico that he “respected” Lula. “Lula is not Bolsonaro, Lula is smart and has a past,” he said.
For their part, Bolsonaro and some of his supporters have tried to frame the elections as akin to a holy war in which the far-right leader is the messiah. “This land is our land, this is our Brazil. Our enemy is not external, it is internal,” Bolsonaro said at a recent event with his political party. “It’s not a fight of the left against the right; it’s a fight of good versus evil.”
Meanwhile, the spectre of some kind of authoritarian power grab in a country that endured a brutal 21-year military dictatorship backed by the United States also looms large.
A poll taken by Datafolha last year found that half of Brazilians feared Bolsonaro could try to stage some sort of coup. The former army captain maintains a solid base of hardline supporters, including in the armed forces, though most experts consider a “tanks on the street” style putsch highly unlikely.
“The fact is that Bolsonaro isn’t popular and his government isn’t popular,” said Traumann.
“But on a 0-10 scale of Bolsonaro gracefully accepting the election results, [the chances] are [at] 1 or 2,” he said, drawing parallels to former US President Donald Trump – whom Bolsonaro has idolised – and his rhetoric of not accepting defeat. “We have seen this film before.”